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Lorna goes to Provence

Lavender field in Provence

Ever wondered what our staff get up to when they go to France? Here's your chance to find out! Lorna and hubby have been out to Provence to explore 

Ok, it was time to leave the kids (17 and 19) at home and allow ourselves the luxury of a cycling and walking holiday without any moans of, “Are we there yet?” and, “I am hungry”. And what better way to do this than to adapt two Provence Belle France holidays and make it into a combined cycling and walking holiday just for us.

So once I had left clear instructions on how to use the washing machine and made enough food to be left in the fridge to feed an army, then it was off to Ashford International to catch the direct Eurostar all the way to Avignon. For this 5 hour journey we decided to travel 1st class and enjoy the benefits of a breakfast and a lunch, (what a good choice) and as we joined the train in Ashford, we sat next to a couple who had joined at St Pancras and were obviously hoping to have the table all to themselves for the entire journey. I could not help but notice their look of dismay when we climbed over their laps to bundle our luggage in the overhead racks and noisily took our positions. But needless to say with my husbands natural chatty disposition and my more gentle but friendly manner we were soon the best of friends and the 5 hours whizzed by in a mix of good conversation, perfectly adequate food and a glass or too of the old chardonnay.

The hot sun that greeted us on our arrival in Avignon was very welcoming and we were glad that we had allowed ourselves a two day stop over in this interesting and lively city. Hotel l’Horloge was perfectly positioned in the centre of the city, and although the church clock was a little noisy; every half hour! the air conditioning meant that you could at least sleep with the windows shut.

Our first evening in Avingon happened to coincide with the cities celebration for the Cotes de Rhones vendages. This meant a street procession followed by a public picnic, which included the degustation of wine from each region. We could not resist joining in and enjoyed a meal of stuffed provencal aubergines, washed down with a fruity red, which sadly I can not remember the name.

Pont du Gard

The next day was dedicated to sightseeing (alas it was Sunday and the shops were all shut) so we visited Palais des Papes and le Pont Benezet, and walked from one end of the city to the other. The cinema in the evening was a good excuse to rest our legs, but the French thriller that we saw was too gripping to allow hubby to nod off. We had decided against a taxi transfer to the starting point of the cycle route the next day and had arranged for the cycles to be delivered to our hotel in Avignon. This worked very well, and only slightly increased the length of the route to the next hotel at Remoulins. The busy streets soon turned to country lanes and the scenery just got better and better. At the end of the route we had a few hours of daylight left to enjoy a tranquil evening at the magnificent Roman viaduct, the ‘Pont du Gard’, before checking in at Le Colombier. The beautiful setting for this family run hotel made up for the slightly plain bedrooms. 

A very stormy night followed, no not us…the weather! We woke up (had we slept at all?) to torrential rain. But luckily as we headed of, fully equipped against the elements, the clouds dispersed and there was even a glimpse of sunshine. Cycling was different, as the quiet country lanes had been transformed into small rivers. However as the day progressed, so did the wind, and whatever direction we went, the wind was against us. My husband, (a keen club cyclist) began to get a little impatient with my speed and said he could walk faster than my cycling, ok the challenge was on, he dismounted and very quickly overtook me, in fact I think I might have been going backwards.

A short stop at the Roman vineyard, Mas de Tourelles, and a little Dutch courage to help me along was very much needed. What a relief it was to eventually reach Mas de Comtes in Tarascon, a beautiful demeure des hôtes with rooms which resembled a kings hunting lodge, (in fact, this is exactly what it was used for originally) and meals that were lovingly prepared and served by our jolly host, Pierre, himself.

The following day was the day trip to Valabregués and the Abby Saint Michel, and although the village of Valabregués is relatively, how shall I put this… dead… the route to and from is absolutely divine and makes it a lovely day out. The Abbey is at the top of a rather lengthy hill, but it is worth the effort, with the added bonus of a good café offering quality lunches. And the ride back down the switchbacks (for all you cyclist enthusiasts who know what these are) was a real treat.

The next day took us though Les Beaux, one of the top tourist attractions of the region, and yes it was beautiful, but if you are like me and prefer not to be caught amongst the many tourists all flocking in one direction, then, like me, you would no doubt appreciate the ride out of the main village, where to your left is a tranquil park area  full of weird and wonderful stone statues, the perfect place for a picnic, and best of all it is deserted with superb views of Les Beaux. Or, just to the right of this is the Cathedral des Images, which I can definitely recommend!

St Remy

Slightly further up the hill, and you need to chain your bikes together and do a bit of scrambling, is the most amazing viewpoint. See for yourselves, but please do not look too closely at the belly. (I blame this on the French bread of which I had been force fed at breakfast, lunch and and evening meal with the cheese before the obligatory desserts). Hotel du Soliel in St Remy is just lovely, yes the bathroom was a little dated, but the rooms were bright and fresh, and perfectly comfortable. The pool and terrace were a real treat and just what we needed.

St Remy itself is a bit too touristy for me, but nonetheless we spent a happy few hours wandering around the boutiques,(although after a while one boutique starts to look amazingly just like another, or had we been in the same shop 5 times?) and then found a superb little family run restaurant La Forge,where we felt that we ate like kings for a very small sum.

Les Alpilles

For the last day we had a walk planned in the Alpilles, now it says in the book that this is an option, but quite honestly I think it should be made obligatory because it was the best fun ever and so stunning. Firstly though a little word of advice, do not attempt this if you are not steady on your feet, or should I say hands, as a good part of this walk does require you to be on all fours. Also you need to be good with a map, yes we did get a little lost and I hate to admit it but we required the services of my husbands blackberry and google maps to inform us that we had actually walked some way in the wrong direction. But this did not matter as the whole area is stunning and it just meant that we had to use a bit of detective work to get us back on track. After 7 hours of walking, and a little rationing with the fluids, (despite this advice I had finished my water after 4 hours and was not for the life of me going to tell my husband as he had warned me numerous times not to finish all my drink in one go, even if this meant collapsing of thirst), we eventually arrived back at du Soleil, to have a much needed sleep before dinner.

The last nights restaurant did not let us down, La Cassolette was full of locals which was a good sign, and the food was amazing, menus varied from just 12€ to 34€, and was typically French with not a chip in sight.

One last word, to say thanks to the all the people we met along the way without whom the holiday would not nearly have been so much fun… so here’s to Anne and Graham, I hope your holiday was as good in Aix, and I am only sorry that we could not afford first class on the train journey back. Pierre, our host at Mas de Comtes, who really made us feel very special. The Frenchman and his dogs, who walked the first half of the Alpilles walk with us and I thought at one stage he was going to want to join us for our picnic. He was so interesting and really knowledgeable on the local countryside, and would have continued all the way if his dogs had not been so old. Also to the woman in traditional dress at the Banque Credit Agricole 100th birthday, who after some initial first aid treatment, (she was suffering from heat and exhaustion) became very sociable.

And finally the owner at La Forge restaurant in St Remy who required English to English translation throughout the whole evening, after a large group of English speaking clients came in. ( I won’t mention the nationality for fear of offending anyone) but I think the whole restaurant was in hysterics after they loudly ordered a bottle of rogue!